Once upon a time, Telok Ayer was a quiet settlement by a bay that offered refuge to passing vessels. It was a landing point for many Chinese immigrants in old Singapore and by the early 1820s, it had become a bustling enclave.
While land reclamation later pushed the waters further out, its name still recalls its seaside past – “telok” means “bay” and “ayer” means “water” in Malay.
Today, Telok Ayer is one of the busiest parts of the city, known mainly for its restaurants offering up all kinds of cuisine. Beyond these new establishments, there are a few surviving old-school shops and remnants of the past wherever you look.
There is no better place than this to begin our series of MRT station guides. The MRT station is on the Downtown Line (grey line).
Learn about the Chulias and their contributions at Nagore Durgha Shrine
Nagore Durgha (also spelled Nagore Dargah) was built by Indian Muslims (or Chulias) from the south of the subcontinent in the late 1820s to honour Shahul Hamid, a revered holy man.
The shrine was gazetted as a national monument in 1974, but had fallen into a state of disrepair by the 1990s. After a lengthy restoration project, Nagore Durgha reopened in 2011 and is now a heritage centre charting the history and heritage of Indian Muslims in Singapore. Admission is free.
The nearby Al-Abrar Mosque, also a national monument, is another significant place of worship built by the Chulias that dates back to the 1820s. Telok Ayer Green, a tree-shaded space adjacent to the shrine, offers some respite, literal and intangible, from the concrete landscape.
Located down the southern end of Telok Ayer Street, Amoy Street Food Centre offers two floors of no-frills lunchtime joy, with more than 100 hawker stalls. The usual practice of identifying the best stalls based on the length of the queues won't work here though,because they all have queues.
For chicken rice, porridge, kway teow, lor mee, ayam penyet, nasi padang, wanton noodles, tze char, kueh and even ramen, you won't have to go anywhere else. If you feel like you've earned an after-meal treat, ice-cream vendors are waiting for you outside the food centre.
After spending all day in a swivel chair or running errands for bosses as you do in the Central Business District, a massage might be what you need to get you through the day. Behind a nondescript glass door, Ancient Therapy is at your service and you can pick a combination of foot and body massages that best suits what ails ye. Combos start at $52 for a 45-minute body and a 20-minute foot massage.
From the outside, China Square Food Centre seems almost lost among the uninspiring high-rise commercial buildings, but it has plenty to offer. Options include chicken and gourmet salad place The Rotisserie, and Italian street-food specialists Morsi & Sorsi. For those with a sweet tooth, there is Peranakan patisserie Chinta Manis. And lava cake lovers will rejoice, since there is a Smoulder here.
Address: 51 Telok Ayer Street
Revisit Singapore's beginnings at Fuk Tak Chi Museum
Established in 1824 by Singapore's early Cantonese and Hakka immigrants, Fuk Tak Chi was one of the island's first Chinese temples. It later also served to take care of the community’s welfare and interests.
The building is now a museum with free entry, displaying artifacts and showcasing a diorama of life in the district during the temple's heyday.
Anything vintage is all the rage these days, but in a country with a throw-away culture, there is not a lot of genuine old stuff to go round.
Then, there are people like Juzer Saifee, the owner of Odds 'N' Collectables. Inside his exquisitely cluttered store, you'll find everything from vinyls to enamel ware, ancient advertising signages, furniture, ceramics, art, and out-of-print books. Just be prepared for a serious battle of wits when it comes to bargaining.
Cafés with good coffee and ethically/organically produced sandwiches are a dime a dozen, but Sarnies stands out from the crowd. The team here are a bunch of real artisans, curing their own bacon in-house and making their own baked goods. It also doubles up as a casual come-and-go eatery by day and a classy, cultured spot with an expanded menu at night.
If your vitamin C levels are running a little low, SunMoon Fresh will look after you. The retail arm of a major fresh fruit and dried goods supplier, this shop doubles as a quickie salad bar where you may get a mix of greens with five toppings of your choice, all for $4.90.
Address: 167-169 Telok Ayer Street | Tel: 63240188 | Opening hours: Mon-Fri 8am-7.30pm; Sat 9am-4.30pm; Sun closed
Marvel at architectural quirk of Thian Hock Keng Temple
Around the time of Fuk Tak Chi's construction, the site now occupied by Thian Hock Keng Temple was a joss house, a simple place where newly-arrived immigrants would give thanks for a safe voyage.
The temple as it appears today was built between 1839 and 1842. Funded by Tan Tock Seng, the construction used traditional techniques that required no nails. Thian Hock Keng received national monument status in 1973 and its restoration in the late 1990s was recognised with an award from UNESCO.
Truffs is a great example of how a change of scene can work wonders. Opened by Teng Ei Liang, a finance graduate who used to work for the Singapore Tourism Board, Truffs is all about chocolate truffles made preservative-free, with the best cocoa from around the world.
It also makes divine cakes such as a dark chocolate blackforest one clad in vanilla Chantilly cream.
Address: 179A Telok Ayer Street | Tel: 90882736 | Opening hours: Mon-Fri noon-7pm; Sat noon-4pm; Sun closed